American power clans.

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What's Wrong With Political Dynasties

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Now that the U.S. officially has a Bush as well as a Clinton in the presidential race -- candidates who might ultimately square off against each other -- the question arises whether dynastic government would be fitting for the world's most powerful democracy. The experience of other democratic countries isn't encouraging. In those with strong political dynasties, the current generation has been doing worse than previous ones.

Political dynasties as such aren't always bad. Consider, for example, the Philippines, probably the most dynasty-based of all democracies, with 70 percent of legislators coming from old political clans. In a 2012 paper on the Philippine political system, Ronald Mendoza and his colleagues described the upside:

Political dynasties afford reformists extended time horizons that enable the planning and implementation of policies with long-term goals. Politicians with shorter tenures often yield to populist demands and shun difficult but necessary reforms that pay-off in the future but are critical to sustained, robust and inclusive growth. It is also possible that dynastic politicians may possess legacy-related motivations that are strongly linked with the overall outcomes in their respective jurisdictions. Thus, the longer their tenure the more they tend to care about long-term outcomes. Alternatively, rent-seeking dynastic politicians, upon recognizing the pecuniary benefits of adopting growth-oriented policies and strategies, might also be motivated towards enacting reforms that would result in considerable and sustainable economic growth in their own jurisdictions.

In other words, politicians who are part of a dynasty strategize for the long term because they're mindful of the family name and the clan's political future. Even if they enrich their families in the process, as they often do, they may take better care of their constituents as well.

The results of dynastic government in the Philippines, however, are hardly stellar. Clans tend to rule in areas that are relatively poor and suffer from greater inequality. It may be easier for established political machines to win in such places, and clan rule may also contribute to slower development.

In many other countries where dynasties are powerful, the current leaders aren't bringing their families much glory. Last year in India, for example, Rahul Gandhi -- the great-grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru -- ran a lackluster campaign and was handily defeated by Narendra Modi, who wants to end the power of the Nehru-Gandhi clan. 

Lee Hsien Loong, son of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's revered first prime minister, has held power for 11 years, but in the last election, in 2011, his party's performance was the worst in its history: The opposition won six of the 81 parliamentary seats -- two more than they ever held under his father. Many Singaporeans see the younger Lee as a pale shadow of his father.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak, son and nephew of previous prime ministers, barely managed to hold on to power in 2013 after his electoral bloc lost the popular vote. Only the peculiarities of the Malaysian election system enabled him to form a government.

In Argentina, the erratic presidency of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner -- widow of previous President Nestor Kirchner -- is likely to be remembered for its many scandals, but not much else.

In short, successful predecessors' shoes have often turned out to be a little loose for dynastic politicians.

In the U.S., dynastic power has been on the wane for decades. While from 1789 to 1858, about 11 percent of American legislators had previous relatives in Congress, the share dropped below 7 percent after 1966, as a 2009 paper by political economist Ernesto Dal Bo shows:

Review of Economic Studies

Nevertheless, the longer a politician serves in Congress, the greater is the probability that his or her relatives will end up there, too -- especially if politics in the state aren't very competitive. "One possible explanation," Dal Bo wrote, "is that when a party safely controls a state, those in control of a party can afford to favor candidates to whom they are connected by family or social ties, suggesting that the dynastic transmission of political power may be more related to superior contacts with party machines -- for example -- than to features valued by voters, such as higher human capital."

The emergence of dynasties may to some extent be explained by the inspiring example of their founders, the traditions of public service and perhaps even by agendas that transcend generations. And, as Dal Bo pointed out, dynasties may have increased female political representation in the U.S.: Being part of a clan has helped women break through glass ceilings. Perhaps it will help Hillary Clinton through the ultimate one, a good outcome in itself even if she doesn't achieve much else.

The darker side of dynastic politics probably outweighs the positives, though. Wherever there are dynasties, there's less competition for votes. There's nothing wrong with members of prominent political families wanting to serve the country. But there's nothing wrong, either, with voters rejecting self-perpetuating government.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net